Foundations of Chemistry

, Volume 14, Issue 3, pp 221–234 | Cite as

The ontological function of first-order and second-order corpuscles in the chemical philosophy of Robert Boyle: the redintegration of potassium nitrate



Although Boyle has been regarded as a champion of the seventeenth century Cartesian mechanical philosophy, I defend the position that Boyle’s views conciliate between a strictly mechanistic conception of fundamental matter and a non-reductionist conception of chemical qualities. In particular, I argue that this conciliation is evident in Boyle’s ontological distinction between fundamental corpuscles endowed with mechanistic properties and higher-level corpuscular concretions endowed with chemical properties. Some of these points have already been acknowledged by contemporary scholars, and I actively engage with their ideas in this paper. However I attempt to contribute to the debate over Boyle’s mechanical philosophy by arguing that Boyle’s writings suggest an emergentist, albeit still mechanistic, notion of chemical properties. I contrast Boyle’s views against those of strict reductionist mechanical philosophers, focusing on the famous debate with Spinoza over the redintegration of niter, and argue that Boyle’s complex chemical ontology provides a more satisfactory understanding of chemical phenomena than is provided by a strictly reductionist and Cartesian mechanical philosophy.


Boyle Spinoza Corpuscularism Mechanism Reductionism Emergentism 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, AH 110Florida Atlantic UniversityBoca RatonUSA

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